Failbetter Games talk Fallen London, Sunless Sea and Beyond

I was lucky enough to get talking to Alexis Kennedy (then CEO of Failbetter Games) over Twitter in 2014. When I parted company with the website I originally wrote the Failbetter articles for, Alexis invited me to come and assist with the launch of Sunless Sea. It was a great experience and one I still look back on fondly.

 


It seems rather fitting that the makers of Fallen London are based so close to a London landmark, albeit a modern one: the company’s offices overlook the O2 Arena. On the cusp of releasing their latest project, Sunless Sea, and with whispers of big Bioware related announcements coming soon, I spoke to Failbetter Games’ Chief Narrative Officer Alexis Kennedy to find out what’s happening in the UK games company.

You’re best known for being the makers of Fallen London. Did the company grow around Fallen London, or did Failbetter exist from the start?

Failbetter came first. I was a software developer for a decade, and software developers like to make startups because we like building things and we don’t understand the other things you need to make a start up, like sales and marketing, which are always on different floors in a big company. I used to think sales and marketing, for example, were surplus. So software developers always think if you build a website things will just happen. Failbetter Games was originally going to be Buzzkill Games, but we thought it gave the wrong idea. Failbetter is a bit more positive.

How did Fallen London start?

I’d always wanted to do something around games and something around writing, and every time I tried to write I felt drawn back to games and every time I tried to do game design I felt drawn back to writing. My original interest was in the Storynexus engine, which was at the time called Prisoner’s Honey.

Echo Bazaar actually started out as a Twitter game, based on bidding on things online. We’d encourage people to tweet things online using certain words and phrases, and there’d be prizes, or “echoes” for getting so many people to retweet it, getting someone well known and with a lot of followers involved and so on. I started writing bits of lore and creating power ups for that… and then I lost total interest in the original concept, but I liked some of the narrative that had been created from it.

So it started to creep toward the game we have now at that point. We changed the name because a developer friend told me “I’d play a game called Fallen London, I wouldn’t play a game called Echo Bazaar”. We’d moved so far from the original concept that I agreed and we became Fallen London. There’s still little moments that reference where we came from though, like Echoes being the games currency, and of course, the game does still have the Bazaar.

When you first launched, how did you feel about the response?

Blown away. To be honest, when you’ve been working on something in your bedroom, seeing that 300 people are playing feels like a massive achievement. But real professional game developers were playing the game and talking about it, and that was as scary as it was exhilarating. I think we got lucky with the flavour of the game and people’s reaction to it – we were in the right place at the right time. Two thirds of our audience is actually American – we think they like the game in the same way they like Sherlock and Doctor Who, in that they like the tone, the humour and the setting.

And then Extra Credits (a web series by several game developers about the difficulties of making a game) plugged us in a 2010 episode – bless them! They actually crashed us! So many people went to check us out based on that video that they brought down the server.

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Extra Credits praised you for making a game that involved more than just combat, where you could do little things like inviting a friend to dinner. Do you think that has a lot to do with your popularity?

I can understand why people might enjoy the variation. We’re a fantasy game, and the fantasy genre often does involve more than “just hitting things” – although we do have combat in the game for those who prefer it. I liked being able to offer lesser found activities, like being a court poet, where becoming renowned was more than just a few dialogue trees, but you actually felt like you’d worked for it. Dream sequences are another thing I think we do differently – in most things, dream sequences are done for exposition, whereas we made them more a part of the rhythm of everyday life. You sleep, you dream, sometimes you have nightmares.

Fallen London is very narrative heavy – do you think that’s been to your benefit?

It gives us a lot of leeway in my opinion. When most of the story is being communicated through the text, it allows for a lot of ambiguity. If we had to do 3D renders of every setting and character, we’d lose so much of the mystery, and without the mystery half our atmosphere would be gone. We can switch perspectives, do flashbacks and dream sequences in ways we’d have no chance to do in a more visual game.

There is some debate about whether we can actually be called a “video game” though. We’re undeniably a game, but there’s no “video”, no animation – we won an award in 2009, and when we went to the ceremony, the footage on the screens cut from gameplay from Arkham Asylum to the page of text and pictures that makes up Fallen London. They actually had to pan over the page since nothing moved!

How long does it take to write a Storylet (Questline)?

That really depends on the Storylet. We calculate story time by the number of branches – a two branch story can take five minutes. A recent storylet had 42 branches though! On a full day where we’re working mostly on Fallen London, we try to do about 20 branches, which works out to about 5-6 stories on average. Writing content takes time, and that’s before we consider the mechanics and continuity we’ll have to test to make sure the new story works before we release it. Sometimes it’s also as hard to write short as it is long.

Can you see player’s progress in the game?

We can! We have a mountain of data that we’re sitting on at the moment about all the players and their experiences of the game. We actually hired someone from the Fallen London community to help us analyse the data, and look at the most common paths for players and so on. But it’s such a big job that it’s hard to know where to start.

We’re wary of publishing too much data though, partly because we don’t want players to feel overly monitored, and also because we don’t want to ruin the feeling of anonymity for players. Many players “crosscast” and play as the opposite gender, or maybe as a sexuality that isn’t their own, and we wouldn’t want anyone to feel unsafe in doing that.

pirate_poet

Fallen London has been praised for letting players create gender neutral characters. What was the thought process behind that?

That was a conscious decision right from the start, but we never set out to be revolutionary with it or to make a point. The concept of gender binary and non-gender binary weren’t really a hot topic the way they are right now, they weren’t as on the radar. We were aware that people may prefer the option to not say their gender, so we provided that option. I’m called Alexis, so many people who meet me were expecting a woman (and many were greatly disappointed that I wasn’t), and as you can imagine I had a fun time with such a name when I was a teenager. So I can sort of understand why some players want to feel “untethered” in a game, that their gender is inconsequential.

It actually started the idea for the Rubbery Men (people in the game with the heads of squid), because I loved the line about “There are people walking around with the heads of squid, and you ask me something as irrelevant as my gender?” and wanted to make sure that could stay, so since it promised squid faced men, we made squid faced men.

You’ve been called Lovecraftian a few times…

We have. I originally searched for any other word than squid to describe the Rubbery Men because of the Cthulu overtones, but squid was by far the best fit, in part because it’s such a funny word. I would argue – with decreasing conviction, I’ll admit – that there are no Lovecraftian elements in Fallen London. The same with Steampunk, although again with the same decreasing conviction. I’d argue we don’t have the same unrelenting misery of Lovecraft stories – we’re a cosmic horror story, yes, but we’re a cheerful one! Instead, we’re all borrowing from the same common sources, so of course, eventually there will be overlap. Also, when you’re trying to create strange and wonderful new animals, eventually something’s going to end up with tentacles.

It’s been four years though, and I don’t think anyone’s worked out that the Bazaar has tentacles yet.

With four years behind you, what would you do differently if you had a chance to redo the game from scratch?

Oh, lots. So much, but I think the biggest thing I’d change was our original overreliance on Twitter, such as people having to use it to log in, encouraging people to tweet about the game for extra actions and so on, because that probably put off potential players who didn’t have a twitter account.

We also underestimated the commitment of the players. When we were just about to launch, I set up a spreadsheet with four classes of player: Casual, Dedicated, Hardcore and Bot. Three weeks after launch, a huge chunk of the players were classed under the “Bot” category! People can change from a bit engaged to super hardcore players very quickly, and we didn’t expect that at all. Players also got through content a lot faster than we’d expected them to, so to start with we were trying to lay down tracks for the game only a step ahead of the players, and then of course they’d play the next step so you’d have to set up another. It took us a while to realise players were happy to wait for new content if it meant they’d get a good amount at once.

wreck-of-the-nocturne

Moving on to your latest project, Sunless Sea – is this is an extension of the Fallen London Universe?

Yes, it is. We actually fought being “The Fallen London guys” for quite some time, we tried other projects, but nothing succeeded with anywhere near the numbers Fallen London brought in. Most Failbetter fans are Fallen London fans, you get fans who say they love Fallen London, and another game we’ve made, but we’ve never had anyone mention one of the others games as their favourite.

We funded Sunless Sea using Kickstarter, which we’d had mixed success with in the past, one successful campaign, one failed. But we wouldn’t have put the game on Kickstarter unless we thought it could succeed, considering we had to spend time making concept art, it was a serious commitment. We honestly thought we’d hit £80,000 at the absolute most, so hitting £100,000 was a great feeling. Some people donated thousands to us to push us over the £100,000 mark, which is good but also terrifying – you don’t want to let people down!

How does Sunless Sea differ to Fallen London?

At the risk of stating the obvious, Fallen London is set in a city, while Sunless Sea is set on the ocean. Sunless Sea whips away the familiar almost entirely, taking the player from busy streets to windswept cliffs. We wanted to highlight the loneliness of being at sea, with only a small crew, unlike Fallen London where you can wander the streets and meet people.

The gameplay is different as well – we suddenly have this whole game where it’s possible to play while barely looking at the text. It’s tremendously freeing to not have to write 20,000 words every time you want to do something new, but suddenly having to deal with real time gaming brings up whole new problems and difficulties.

So the plot revolves around exploration?

It’s a layered plot, but yes. What you’re doing from moment to moment in Sunless Sea is making decisions on how to survive, dealing with your rising fear and hunger, while deciding what ports to head for. And then when you reach port, or talk to a crew member, or a storylet pops up because you’re scared, then there’s choices to be made there.

There’s four ambitions, for lack of a better word, for the game, and those are your end goals. You can sail off the edge of the map, set up a utopian society on one of the many islands you discover, unlock the legacy of your family… or you could just make enough money to retire comfortably. It’s entirely up to you.

There’ll also be tough choices to make along the way – activities such as travelling new areas and discovering new creatures fill up your exploration bar, which gains you secrets, which you can use to boost your stats or spend to further stories on the ship. If you want to learn more about a member of your crew, for example, you’l have to invite them to dinner in your cabin, which will use up more of your food supplies. When an journey ends, you won’t be able to keep everything you find, so you’ll have to choose what’s most important to your game and your story.

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How would you describe Sunless Sea to people who haven’t played Fallen London?

It’s a challenging game, where the emphasis is on the atmosphere of exploration, where you might cross the next wave and find something completely new and unexpected.

When can we expect Sunless Sea Out?

We’re hoping to release the game at the end of May, but it might slip to June or July.

Any plans for DLC/Expansion on the original story?

We committed to one expansion pack in the Kickstarter for getting past £100,000. Anything beyond that depends on how well the game does. Ideally, we can keep adding content indefinitely. The biggest obstacle is adding new artwork, which would require more of a patch than an update.

Do you have any further plans for Fallen London?

We have plans, but it’d be charitable to call them concrete in any way. We’re interested in creating a “hardcore” version of Fallen London for mobile devices called The Flit, which would probably focus more on the poverty found in Victorian London, where every single scrap of resource counts.

We were originally hoping to continue the small Fallen London comic we started, Sophia and Mr Soap, but unfortunately the online host we found fell through. We’d like to continue it one day, but we’d have to find it a decent home first.

Now, about that Bioware Collaberation…

Ah yes. That has actually been two years in the making.

Two years? How have you not burst?

I don’t know! It did take a long time to become more than just a possibility, so that made it a little easier to not be able to talk about it once it became a real thing.

We were originally invited by Bioware to give a talk about interactive narratives – there’s quite a few people in the company who’ve been vocal fans and big supporters of Fallen London, but it was still terrifying to stand in front of big time games developers and say “This is how we do it!”, and then they suggested we might want to do a project for them, and of course we said yes.

How was it working with Bioware developers?

It was great! The people at Bioware are really smart, and they were good about letting us stay in creative control because they wanted the Failbetter touch. Every time there was a decision to be made, they went with what we wanted to do.

Any last clues you can give us?

Sadly, it’s not a full Fallen London RPG. It definitely has elements of Fallen London though – it’s definitely a Failbetter-y game, because  that’s what interests us. What I can say is that we are going to be making an announcement in the coming months. Watch this space!

Welcome Delicious Friend: Who Are Failbetter Games?

This article was written while I was working part time for an online gaming magazine. Like the previous post, the website this was originally posted on no longer exists. 

I wrote this article as preparation because I was lucky enough to get to interview the then-CEO of Failbetter Games, which I will also post. 


Failbetter Games are a games studio based in London, best known for their browser based game Fallen London, but also for their relationship with fans.

It’s not many studios where the company CEO contacts fans personally to discuss the game and their thoughts on it, or offers the engine they created for their first game to fans who wish to try their own hand at world building, after all. Failbetter Games created StoryNexus, the engine and toolset behind all their games thus far, and then made it available to those signed up to play one of the existing stories, daring their users to see if they can do better.

Fallen London

Fallen London, originally named Echo Bazaar, is an game set in an alternate universe version of Victorian London, where the entire city (and it’s inhabitants) one day suddenly sank down below the ground. Players wake up in the city’s prison, and learn some interesting little facts about their new home as they work to escape – death is no longer permanent (except in the really bad cases), devils and squid faced men roam the streets, people deal in secrets as much as they do money, cats can talk and there’s a lot of terrifying creatures around every corner that would be more than happy to have you for dinner.

Sound strange? You’ve barely scratched the surface.

Gameplay wise, the game is a text based RPG. Players start off able to access four main areas, each with activities that can boost one of the four main “stats” of the game: Watchful, Shadowy, Dangerous and Persuasive. Along the way, you’ll make friends and enemies, collect as many curiosities as you can carry and trade in them, become famous, and even dabble in a career or two: you can become an academic, an archaeologist, a hunter, a journalist, a smuggler, a writer and many more.

For the more social Fallen London players, there’s also Knife and Candle, proudly advertised as the “politest game of murder you’ll ever play”. Yes, gain an invitation to Knife and Candle and you can try to kill anyone you’re friends with in the game. Don’t feel too bad about it – they’ll be trying to kill you as well. The game is a good way to earn rare items, but watch out – if another player gains the upper hand, they might get a chance to steal your hard earned (or ill gotten) goods.

From Fallen London…

For the more social Fallen London players, there’s also Knife and Candle, proudly advertised as the “politest game of murder you’ll ever play”. Yes, gain an invitation to Knife and Candle and you can try to kill anyone you’re friends with in the game.

Failbetter do continuously work on Fallen London (the game is practically unrecognisable from its Echo Bazaar days) but that’s not all they do. Other games by the company include The Silver Tree, Thirst World, Cabinet Noir, Black Crown and Zero Summer.  The company were even commissioned by Random House to create an interactive world for then upcoming book release “The Night Circus” in which players could get a taste of the titular circus and its mysteries before they read the book. In other media, Fallen London has spawned comics and live events and there’s even talk of turning Knife and Candle into a tabletop game.

 

 

…To Sunless Sea

Failbetter’s big project right now makes the leap from browser based game to digital download. Sunless Sea is set in the same world as Fallen London (Sunless Seas characters even made brief appearances in Fallen London last Halloween). The game takes place aboard a ship of which you are the captain, and it’s up to you to keep your crew alive and well, discover the mysteries of the areas you explore and the people you’re sailing with, as well as the Zee itself (and no, that’s not a typo. The ocean is the Zee, and those who travel across it are Zailors. Go with it). The game, which is promised out soon, was backed by Kickstarter funding, which was a roaring success. Failbetter asked for the sum of £60,000 and gained nearly twice that before the campaign was up.

So what next?

Well, as we reported last week, Failbetter have coyly revealed their involvement with a “small, niche”, practically unknown company called Bioware (I think they might have a game out this year and another in development, it’s not like I cling to every scrap of information they release or anything…), so we’ll be on the lookout for more information on what that could entail. Of course, if Sunless Sea succeeds, Failbetter may continue down the path of more conventionally available games.

The good news is, PCG Media is going to be talking to Failbetter’s CEO, Alexis Kennedy, very soon, so we should be able to bring you plenty of new information on the company in the immediate future.

 

The Marvel of Cosplay

Author’s note: This article was originally written for a (now sadly gone) online magazine called Guise Magazine. It was originally published in Mar 2014.

 


A couple of weeks ago was the San Diego Comic-Con, known to many as the biggest gathering of geeks, film fans and combinations thereof of the year. Fans come from all over America, even all over the world, for the chance to meet their favourite actors and see glimpses of films, TV shows and other media coming soon.

One such panel, the Thor 2 gathering, was interrupted rather dramatically when a man stormed onto the stage and demanded that the audience kneel before him. Rather than calling security, the crowd went wild and obeyed, for this was no enthusiastic fan – this was Loki, villain and main character of the very film the panel was being held to promote. Or rather, it was actor Tom Hiddleston dressed as Loki. Quoting lines of his own dialogue from previous films, “Loki” worked the room, showing the powerful enthusiasm of the audience, and also one very important fact – the clothes do make the man.

Tom Hiddleston is an actor known for his humility and adoration of his fans. Loki, on the other hand, is known for his arrogance and for seemingly killing fan-favourite Agent Phil Coulson. So it was definitely Loki who strode onto stage, interrupting the panel to receive worship from the fans.

Hiddleston’s choice to come in costume highlights a growing rise in the popularity of cosplay. Cosplay, short for “costume play”, is the hobby of dressing as a fictional character, often at gatherings such as conventions. Many conventions have competitions and prizes for best cosplays, and the variety at such gatherings is often incredible. Characters from films, books, TV show and video games assemble, often providing an air of the surreal to proceedings. Characters from animated media such as video games, cartoons and anime are often the most interesting to see brought to life, as the cosplayers work to make their hair defy gravity, or even to take the shape of a non-human character. Yes, dressing up is no longer just for children and Halloween.

Once seen as the hobby of only the most stereotypical geek, who, as the cliché went, lived in their parents’ house well into adulthood and rarely, if ever had a partner, now cosplaying has gained an element of acceptability.

No doubt a large part of the acceptance comes from the eagerness of actors and other celebrities to don their costumes. Jane Lynch dressed as Calhoun, the character she voiced in Wreck It Ralph, for Halloween. Lindsey Stirling, the “Rock and Roll violinist” and Youtube phenomenon, regularly creates tributes to media such as video games and dresses appropriately for the occasion. Ron Perlman underwent the four hours of special effects make-up necessary to become Hellboy in order to grant the Make-A-Wish request of a six year old leukaemia patient. Helen Mirren put on the crown once more for another Make-A-Wish boy who wished to meet the Queen.

On the less well known side of things are charity organisations who dress up to raise money or do good. The 501st Legion, for example, is an organisation whose members dress up as Star Wars characters for events in order to raise money. When Darth Vader is asking for your donation while backed by two Storm Troopers, most people would feel the need to donate.

To cosplay is not a simple hobby – many cosplayers can find themselves spending tens, hundreds, even thousands of pounds on their costumes, and many companies have taken notice. While it is often possible to buy a full costume readymade, many cosplayers feel that it’s better to go as handmade as possible, and competitions often agree – many conventions have rules about how much of a costume can be store bought compared to hand made. The more difficult costumes, involving things such as scifi battle armour (as seen in video games such as Halo and Mass Effect) and often made from little more than cleverly cut and painted card and foam board. For many, these costumes are labours of love. Only the very best can hope to make any money back, but there are actually some professional cosplayers.

The other benefit of cosplay is the sense of escapism that it can give, especially a costume with a mask or other ways to obscure one’s identity. This is in no way an encouragement to misbehave, but especially when surrounded by others in costumes, not being yourself can be very freeing, and not just for ordinary folk. Going back to the San Diego Comic-Con, Hugh Jackman commented on walking around dressed as Wolverine and not being recognised by a single fan, whereas current Doctor Matt Smith donned a Bart Simpson mask to wander the halls undetected. Even Tom Hiddleston arrived at the convention dressed as Jango Fett of Star Wars in order to keep Loki’s hijack of the Thor 2 panel a surprise.

There’s even possibility to put your own spin on a character – cosplays that change the gender, ethnicity or time setting of a character are all very common (steampunk is one of the most common “spins” on a character’s design). You don’t have to look like a character to cosplay them. Some people don’t even need a character to cosplay – they create their own, such as Teen Wolf (the TV show, not the film) actor Keahu Kahuanui who made an unexpected appearance at the SDCC Teen Wolf panel in a costume of his own making, complete with mask as to not spoil the surprise. Kahuanui later commented on Twitter that the costume was not of an existing fictional character but instead was an original design.

So, as cosplay goes from geek cliché to cool, there will of course be consequences. Many online groups have been accused of cosplay snobbery, and there is often criticism of cosplay killjoys – those who suck the fun out of cosplay and cosplay competitions by being over-critical of other people’s costumes. Permission to take photos, especially of women in lycra costumes, is also often a point of contention, and many female cosplayers can face harassment or accusations of not even knowing who they’re dressed as, or being a “fake geek girl” who’s only present for the attention. However, the internet allows for safe spaces with like minded individuals determined to keep cosplay fun and enjoyable for everyone, from providing tips for cosplay beginners to organising meetings for safety in numbers.

Ultimately, cosplay will only grow in popularity, especially if encouraged by celebrity cosplayers like Hiddleston. Cosplay takes time and effort and those should be appreciated and encouraged. Designers, makeup artists and photographers have even received professional boosts from their hobby.

And as for my opinion on the cosplay culture? Let’s just say that the girl who has never dressed as a fictional character should cast the first stone. I’m a biased source.

Hello Trouble

Before I start adding original content, I am going to post some previous articles that I wrote in the last couple of years. These were originally written for and published on websites that no longer exist, so I doubt anyone will be too unhappy with me reposting them.